Ten years is a significant milestone in any sector--relationships, business, birthdays, Scotch and one-time events that become traditions. Of all the grand anniversaries this year, one of the most wildly fun also happens to be one of the most worthwhile. Called Celebration of Women in the Arts (for those of you who live under rocks watching game show reruns), it is one of the largest outlets in Idaho for women to showcase their talents in performance, visual and dramatic mediums. It is one day out of the year that Hannah's transforms from a crowded nightspot to a draped display space fit for everything from still-life paintings to fire dancing. And it is one night out of the year that the house diva, Rocci Johnson, takes a backseat to women of all ages bringing the best of themselves to benefit the art community and the Women's and Children's Alliance (WCA).
"When a group of women who are individually talented get together and perform, it creates this fire, and you realize how powerful we are," Johnson said.
The fire started back in 1994 nearly seven years after Johnson and her band set up shop as the regular act at Hannah's. She had met many impressive women along the way, especially in musical circles, and wanted to unite them on stage.
"I wanted to get all of the female singers and entertainers [in town] together at once, but I had to figure out how to facilitate renting a venue and booking a band. Then it occurred to me that I already had the venue and the band," she said. "Once I planted the seed, it mushroomed." Johnson called 10 or 15 local artists together to discuss the details, and it was beautiful chaos. "Our first committee meeting, I invited all these people over and everybody was throwing out all of these ideas. It was so great," she said. One idea was to include other forms of art like dance, poetry, painting, sculpting, acting and anything else that would promote women and demonstrate the spectrum of their creativity. The exhibition would also be non-juried, meaning that anyone who was female and sincere about participating could submit up to three pieces for sale or silent auction. The only other rules were that personal and professional gripes would be left at home and nearly all of the proceeds would go to a worthy organization.
So the newly-formed "Divas" agreed to join forces, and though the group has changed a little over the years, it is still made up of 10 amazing performers who usually end the event by rocking out to gospel, R&B and, of course, Aretha Franklin. Johnson is hailed as the "creatrix" of the raucous bunch, and she is joined by the substantial talents of some of the biggest names in local music: Kathy Miller, a recognized jazz vocalist and longtime host of the Sun Valley Jazz Festival; Kerry Rourke and Mary Magil Weaver, founders of disco cover sensation $oul Purpo$e and singers in several other local bands (not to mention Weaver's penchant for pig-calling); Rebecca Scott, a nationally recognized artist who measures up to K.D. Lang in both looks and pipes and her band-mate Deb Sager, who mixes percussion and singing with real estate; Margaret Montrose Stigers, mother of Curtis Stigers and a regular in local theater; Sirah Storm, a blues prodigy who mentored with Johnny Heartsman and now fronts The Blue Tail Twisters; Cherie Buckner-Webb, an amazing talent who has been known to sing with the likes of Gene Harris; and Rosalie Sorrels, the Godmother of folk who still performs at the plucky age of 70.
While the divas usually steal the show, it promises over five hours of inspiring views, sounds and vibes. Sixty visual artists will display their work including Zella Bardsley, Miriam Woito and three generations of Erb women (Doris, Julie and Lindsay). Fifty-one poets will lace words, a photographic video collage of local mothers and daughters will be shown, a diva wannabe contest will be waged and a 6-foot by 20-foot steel sculpture by Janine Miller-Fritz will be ceremoniously lit by two fire dancing troupes--the Fire Kittens and The Sirens. There will also be a raffle, silent auction, awards and food, making the evening a catchall.
"It's as much a social event as it is a benefit and a fun way to promote our work," Johnson said. "It is dear to my heart."
While she insists on taking very little credit for the success of the annual celebration, Johnson's personal history is deeply ingrained in its spirit. Born the second child of seven in a Catholic family, she witnessed and experienced severe physical and mental abuse doled out by her own father.
"If I hadn't had a crisis center to retreat to, I wouldn't be alive today," Johnson said. "I'm living proof of how you can move out of the cycles of domestic abuse and violence and have a full, happy life."
To look at her, you couldn't imagine Johnson taking lip from anyone. She is tall and lithe with high cheekbones, bright eyes and a smile that is as wide and infectious as her personality. She wears Halloween socks in November and jaunty velvet caps stuffed stylishly over her long blonde hair. She is immediately ageless, and though she won't admit to a birthday, she will say that the first song she performed for an audience was Janis Joplin's Piece of my Heart, "and that's when it was a hit!" she laughs. But for all her sparkle and energy, she explained that many women who defy the "type" are victims of abuse.
"That's what's so compelling about the cycle of domestic violence. When you're born into it, almost programmed with it, it doesn't matter if it aligns with your personality. Some of the strongest most talented people are affected," she said. "What the WCA offers wasn't there for my mother--hence my passion about this event."
Given her personal experience, choosing the Women's and Children's Alliance as a beneficiary was a no-brainer for Johnson. She and her cohorts invited WCA Director Bev LaChance to the very first Celebration, and she was overwhelmed with the results.
"We didn't realize at the time that it would evolve and grow and mature into this incredible event," LaChance said. "It is by far one of the most fun ones out there. It's a kick, and it's a kick for a worthy cause." The success of that first go-round prompted planning the next year and the next and the next, and on both sides of the stage, people have contributed approximately $150,000 in 10 years. "This fundraiser is critically important to our program. It lets us reach out to a lot more people," said LaChance. "These women give their time, energy and talent every year, and from day one, it has been such a joy to be part of it."
Johnson feels the same way about a happening that manages to be unabashedly joyful and deeply significant all at once.
"This is something very dear to me and many women--a celebration about women to promote women's causes and issues," Johnson said. "You can beat us down till we're almost nonexistent, but we'll always rise up and amaze."
Tenth annual Celebration of Women in the Arts, November 16, 5-10 p.m., Hannah's, 621 Main St., $8 advance tickets at the WCA, Flying M, Boise State Women's Center, Art Source Gallery and Hannah's or $10 at door. For more information, call Rocci Johnson at 342-2206 or Bev LaChance at 343-3688, ext. 22.